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USDA works to reopen beef export markets

Some countries continue to ban U.S. beef, after an animal with mad cow disease was discovered in December.
Some countries continue to ban U.S. beef, after an animal with mad cow disease was discovered in December.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reopening the export markets for U.S. beef in the wake of the mad cow discovery last month is a "top priority," Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said Tuesday.

Veneman said that the department has kept its investigative process open to trade partners, including allowing teams of investigators from other countries to visit facilities and see for themselves how the United States is approaching the problem.

"Our efforts to restore exports continue and we urge our partners to resume trade based on sound scientific principles," she told the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Veneman said it is important to note that both Canada and the Philippines had not completely closed their markets to American beef, and added that she was pleased that Poland has already allowed U.S. beef to re-enter its markets.

She also said that cattle markets, after dropping more than 15 percent after the announcement of the mad cow case on December 23, are now down only 5 percent to 8 percent from their levels before the announcement.

"And our food supply and public health remain protected," she said.

Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner Lester Crawford also testified before the committee, easing the minds of other food animal farmers who were concerned that their livelihoods could be affected by mad cow disease, known in the scientific community as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

"At the present time, scientific evidence holds that pigs, chickens and turkeys are not susceptible to BSE," he said.

The Senate hearing came a day after the Food and Drug Administration announced several new steps to protect Americans from mad cow disease, including banning chicken waste from cattle feed and barring restaurant meat scraps from being used in animal feed.

"[These] actions will make strong public health protections against BSE even stronger," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "Small as the risk may already be, this is the time to make sure the public is protected to the greatest extent possible."

FDA commissioner Mark McClellan added, "With [Monday's] actions, FDA will be doing more than ever before to protect the public against BSE by eliminating additional potential sources of BSE exposure."

U.S. and Canadian authorities banned the use of brain and spinal cord tissue in cattle feed in August 1997. That ban has been one of the main defenses in preventing mad cow disease from entering the human food chain.

But after a dairy cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease late last year, the government has implemented even more measures, including banning cow brains and other tissue from entering the human food chain.

Mad cow disease first appeared in Britain in the mid-1980s, and millions of cattle were slaughtered as a result. The disease is linked to a similar form of the incurable and fatal brain-wasting disease in humans, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or vCJD.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 153 cases of vCJD have been reported worldwide: 143 in Britain, six in France and one each in Canada, Ireland, Italy and the United States. The Canadian, Irish and U.S. cases were reported in people who had lived in Britain.

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